Nearly invisible along a barren strip of Montreal Road in Ottawa’s east end (near Blair Road) is a new café, which, once you go inside, sit down and unwind, makes you forget its sparse surroundings and the increasingly short and dark days.
Gourmet Café is hopefully a canary in the coal mine for this part of Ottawa, which despite its proximity to upscale Rothwell Heights and the National Research Council, is serviced almost exclusively by fast food outlets.
I was contacted by the owner, Gabrielle Bégin – a recent transplant from Montreal – through the Vegan Eats Ottawa Facebook page, as she wanted to add a few vegan options to the café menu and was seeking some assistance. Appropriately, Gourmet Café occupies what used to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken; a subtle but undeniable victory for vegans that its new occupant is so keen to introduce animal-friendly options.
After a great jam session, she immediately put the ideas we developed into action, and a few days later I was invited back – along with a couple members from my Vegan Eats Ottawa crew – to be the official taste testers for the vegan additions!
Something you should know about Gourmet Café: There are no set prices. The Café operates on a “pay what you feel it’s worth” model, which is very much out of synch with other Ottawa eateries. (Edited Feb. 29 to note that this pricing structure no longer seems to be intact.)
For Bégin, a young and recent graduate of a business administration diploma program, it’s a bit of a social experiment. She says that for every customer who pays a pittance ($1.50 for a fair trade organic latte?) there are others who are extremely generous. She says that this model drives her and her staff to provide each customer with an exemplary experience.
Bégin has owned the cafe for just over a month, and her vision is to create a comfortable European-style space in which people can enjoy delicious, locally-crafted food (she wants to showcase local makers). “I don’t want commercial suppliers, I want to support real people,” she says. “We eat industrial food. There’s no soul in the food we eat.”
She is also currently seeking a supplier of vegan cakes and pastries.
The café has free wifi and a relaxed, warm atmosphere; there is little indication that it was once a KFC. She has installed reclaimed wood accents, in keeping with her desire for Gourmet Café to be one of a kind. Ontario beers and wines are available at a low price – only $3.50 for a beer.
Now the most important part: The food! Bégin is introducing a vegan sandwich to the menu, which will be available every day – a coconut BLT with spicy mayo and vegan cheese (she’s hoping to bring in Zengarry), on a locally crafted artisinal seed bread. We tried it, and it was pretty terrific. The bread especially really made the sandwich – fresh, flavourful, and just the right amount of crustiness.
Next, we were treated to a proposed vegan hot meal, which to start will be available on Wednesdays. You can eat it in the cafe, or take one to go.They will already be pre-packaged for quick and easy pick up. Bégin may put a price on the hot meals, but assures that it will be under $10.
Isn’t the ribbon cute? At first we weren’t sure what the part under the veggies was – overcooked quinoa was our best guess. But we were wrong. In fact, it was more of a cauliflower pilaf – nicely seasoned with a bit of heat to it. It’s topped with sautéed vegetables and pumpkin seeds. It was very flavourful and filling, a perfect option on a cold Ottawa evening. If the vegan option goes well, Bégin is open to expanding its availability, and to introduce other innovative dishes.
To top off our meal we were treated to a vegan smoothie, and a latte (the cafe has almond milk – no extra charge of course, since you set the price.)
So what did my dining companions think?
“Gourmet Café has a warm and cozy feel with some delicious vegan options on their menu,” said Kate. “The friendly staff have a genuine interest in veganism and healthy eating. Their innovative approach to business puts them in a unique position to do some interesting things in the future.”
Karl adds, “Gourmet Café provides a very warming and comfortable place to enjoy real food; which is increasingly harder to find. They offer various vegan choices that aren’t found at many other restaurants in the Ottawa area.”
Gourmet Café is open seven days a week; hours may vary as it’s a one-woman operation, so calling in advance outside of 11-7 for now is advisable.If you’re able to make it out that way, give it a try and support a young woman entrepreneur who is keen to provide more vegan options in Ottawa’s East end.
1687 Montreal Rd. Ottawa
Ph: (613) 244-1159